Biden Needs Unions to Force His Hand

To enact an FDR-scale agenda, the president needs the energy of his party’s pro-labor wing.

Joe Biden with a group of people
Calla Kessler / The New Yor​k Times / Redux

Joe Biden did an extraordinary thing for an American president earlier this week: Without qualification, he supported the right of workers to form a union. Biden didn’t just weigh in on behalf of those seeking to unionize an Amazon distribution facility in Bessemer, Alabama. He also affirmed the importance of unions for all workers and for the good of the country. Conservatives and centrist media outlets often assume that the Democratic Party is “beholden” to “Big Labor.” In fact, the labor movement is the smallest it has been since 1900. And although Democratic presidents and members of Congress like labor well enough, they don’t exactly love it. They usually have concerns other than supporting workers who are trying to organize or defend a union. Behind closed doors, many Democratic politicians, including Biden, tell union audiences what they want to hear. On Sunday night, though, the president’s video about the Alabama organizing drive ricocheted around Facebook and Twitter, the social-media-age equivalent of a national address.

Before November’s election, amid the devastation of the pandemic and a massive reckoning with racial injustice, Biden was said to be planning a presidency more ambitious than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. But to get any expansive agenda passed, Biden needs to create more space in American political culture for political advocacy on behalf of workers and unions. And he needs the American public to show support for workers’ rights. “Make me do it,” Roosevelt supposedly told civil-rights advocates and labor activists who wanted him to pursue bold actions. The quotation is almost certainly apocryphal, but the lesson holds: If you raise enough hell, I can help you.

The parable helps explain why Biden—who himself has often relied on his “Scranton Joe” shtick as a substitute for union advocacy—made the strongest public speech in support of the legal, practical, and moral right of workers to organize a labor union that an American president has ever made: He now sees a lot of energy coming from his party’s progressive wing.

Even Roosevelt—who immensely expanded America’s truncated welfare state and was beloved by working-class voters and sometimes openly hostile to the country’s “economic royalists”—was indifferent to the National Labor Relations Act as it went through Congress. Indeed, he stalled the bill for a year before ultimately signing it, in 1935. Roosevelt also failed to support crucial organizing drives in the steel and textile industries. Although the Congress of Industrial Organizations cleverly attributed pro-union words to Roosevelt on its posters, and FDR himself sometimes urged companies to settle with union-organizing campaigns, he was not instinctively a booster of the movement, as far as I and many labor historians know, and he was wary of being too closely associated with its most radical elements.

Out of deference to labor, the next Democratic president, Harry Truman, unsuccessfully vetoed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed states to enact anti-union “right to work” laws. But he was frequently enraged by strikes and union leaders, such as the imperious John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society included legislation for almost every component of the Democratic Party’s post–New Deal coalition, but unions lost on their primary goal of reversing the worst parts of Taft-Hartley. More recently, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama sometimes said the right things about unions and appointed some excellent pro-union agency personnel, but brought little passion to the cause of labor. Over generations, because of enormous structural economic changes, vehement Republican Party opposition, and labor’s own strategic failures, union membership waned. The modern Democratic Party did not see labor as linked either to its expanding suburban constituency or to the growing Black-freedom movement. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr.—who believed that labor rights and civil rights were linked and was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated in 1968—Democrats often took unions’ endurance and political strength for granted.

Biden’s video speech signals a much warmer embrace of labor. “Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” he said—an obvious reference to the Amazon-warehouse fight in Bessemer. Why does that specificity matter? Amazon is the second-largest private-sector employer in the United States. Its impersonal consumer interface and globalized, relentlessly efficient supply chain make the company the emblem of modern capitalism. The effort of workers at Amazon’s Alabama plant is today’s parallel of the great organizing drives in the steel and auto industries in the 1930s. Its subject is a hugely successful company that has made itself central to the nation’s economy. By weighing in on the right to unionize, Biden also engaged two other audiences: Any workers thinking about organizing anywhere in the country, and everyone else interested in the well-being of the American polity.

Biden had several detailed messages for these groups. First, he argued that unions give workers power over their wages, their safety, and their health. In an acknowledgment that today’s working class is multiracial and about half female, he underscored that unions protect against “racial discrimination and sexual harassment” and are especially valuable for “brown and Black workers.” (About 85 percent of the workers at the Bessemer facility are Black.) Making a great organizer’s pitch, he noted that unions “lift up” non-union workers too.

Second, Biden grounded the right to organize in the law—the National Labor Relations Act, which not only allows unions but, as the president noted, explicitly encourages organizing.

Third, Biden upheld workplace democracy. Without explicitly telling Amazon workers to vote to unionize, he reminded Americans that the “the choice to join a union is up to the workers. Full stop. Full stop.”

Finally, the president called out American companies—the most anti-union employers in any advanced country in the world—and warned that “no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” should occur. He made no pretense that management and union organizers are equally to blame in labor disputes. The 1935 act assumed that only employers—those who write workers’ paychecks and have the power to terminate their employment—could commit an unfair labor practice, by frightening workers into opposing union representation. Biden said to American employers, including Amazon: I see what you’re up to.

Delivered with a full measure of Biden-esque earnestness, the video is a remarkable document of a transitional phase in our political culture—one in which Trumpist Republicans claim to be the “party of the working class,” but do not actually support labor unions or working-class people’s right to join them. Union organizers will play Biden’s remarks over and over again for workers locked in fights against anti-union companies—which include virtually all U.S. companies whose employees are not yet organized.

Whether the president’s comments will help organizers in Bessemer is unclear. The Biden video came after voting had already begun, and Amazon has been working aggressively to defeat this drive. As is typical during union-organizing campaigns, Amazon subjected workers to mandatory “captive audience” meetings in which the company pushed its self-serving view that organizing would be bad for workers—but the union is not permitted on company property to rebut the case.

Yet Biden’s words matter, and they contain the seed of political possibility. The country’s political and economic order is experiencing acute and chronic crises. One of the two major parties has given up hope of winning over a majority of the country’s voters. To achieve and maintain power, the Republicans rely on voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, and anachronistic structural features of American governance—federalism, the Electoral College, the Senate, and, within the Senate, an antidemocratic requirement for a supermajority.

A more egalitarian and just political system will require a reinvigoration of the Voting Rights Act, which has been gutted by the courts, and a pro-union revision of the National Labor Relations Act, which has typically been amended to discourage workers from organizing. It will also require the elimination of the filibuster, which is the only way Democrats can enact a reform agenda at the moment. To accomplish all this, Biden needs to harness the energy of the pro-labor, social-democratic faction of the Democratic Party, led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Politico recently reported that labor activists pressured Biden to make a pro-union statement about the Amazon fight and that White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was at the center of those discussions. Make us do it, Klain seemed to be saying—a far cry from when Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was quoted as saying, “Fuck the UAW!”

Labor organizers have other reasons for hope. On the first day of his presidency, Biden fired the union-busting lawyer Trump had installed as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. A son of the conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia served as Trump’s secretary of labor. Biden’s nominee for that job is Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a reformist former leader of that city’s Building Trades Union. For the second-highest position in the department, Biden tapped Julie Su, who, as California’s labor secretary, has been highly critical of the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. Biden’s pick to run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration previously worked for the United Steelworkers’ workplace-safety department.

Now Biden has committed his support publicly to the highest-profile union drive in the country—a sign that he understands how fighting for workers’ rights could yield a more equitable country. The labor left of the Democratic Party, and the labor movement itself, must make him do it.